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What is Meant by the Divine Authority of the Writings?

by Hugo LJ. Odhner

(Delivered to the Council of the Clergy, Bryn Athyn, Pa., January 25, 1956.)


Every traditional view of doctrine must from time to time be examined, not only as to its basis in revelation, but as to its history and as to the way in which it is understood by later generations.

Two years after the formation of the General Church of the New Jerusalem, Bishop W. F. Pendleton made a carefully worded statement of what the men of the "Academy movement" had come to understand as the teaching of the Writings about themselves. He used these words:

"In the Writings . . . is contained the very essential Word, which is the Lord. From them the Lord speaks to His Church, and the church acknowledges no other Authority, and no other Law."

This principle was a consensus, in the nature of a derived doctrine, a doctrine drawn by men and reformulated by them. It carried no Divine authority of its own, but its peculiar force was that it disowned authority to itself and to any statement or thought constructed by men, and left that authority outside of man, in the Writings as "the essential Word," the Word revealed before the rational sight of men's minds.

In describing the Writings as "the very essential Word," Bishop Pendleton presumably referred back to the Arcana statement that "the internal sense is the ipissimum Verbum in which the Divine is most immediately" (AC 3432, cp 1540 and AE 759). "Ipsissimum" had been translated as "essential" by Dr. R. L. Tafel in his book, Authority in the New Church, which in 1877 most powerfully presented the Academy position before the Council of Ministers of the General Convention and was published by its Board of Publication. One of the founders of the Academy, Dr. Tafel wrote the notable articles on "Science and Philosophy in the New Church" in the Words for the New Church. He is also known as the compiler of the Documents Concerning Swedenborg and as the translator of The Brain.

Writing from the conviction that the Writings, in which the Lord made His second coming, present the internal sense which "is doctrine itself (AC 9380, p. 37) and "the law of the New Church" (P. 38), Dr. Tafel cites the teaching that one must view things of reason from the doctrine of faith, by "first believing the Word or doctrine thence, and then confirming them by rational considerations" (AC 2568). The affirmative principle which alone can "lead to all intelligence and wisdom" consists "in affirming those things which belong to doctrine from the Word, or in thinking or believing that they are true because the Lord has spoken them" (ibid.).

Noting that the doctrines of the New Church, including the memorable relations, were written by Divine command and by the Lord through Swedenborg, Dr Tafel shows that the spiritual things in these Writings are as the soul, while the natural things, or the natural truths contained there, are in the place of the body, and that their relation is as intimate as that existing between the soul and the body (page 44). If the body is removed, the soul becomes powerless. The spiritual truths in the Writings derive their power from the natural truths in which they are mirrored (page 45). And, having shown how Swedenborg had from his youth acquired natural facts which the Lord later adopted as the ultimate vessels of revealed doctrine, he concludes:

"All the natural facts, therefore, contained in the theological writings of Swedenborg have acquired the force and power of natural truths; and by means of these natural truths the whole field of natural science may be reformed and regenerated, even as the whole field of philosophy and theology will be reformed and regenerated by the rational and spiritual truths which are contained in the same writings" (page 46).

Even as the serpent, in the prophecy, would attack the seed of the woman by bruising His heel, so the foes of the New Church would assail the scientific elements in the Writings.

That the Writings-as to their spiritual message-are of Divine origin, is in various ways affirmed by all who claim to be of the New Church. But you can place no "authority" in anything so intangible as a soul without a body. If there is to be a Divine authority in the Writings, it must be vested in their text, or at least in the obviously intended meaning which the text conveys to any reasonable reader.


Authority implies authorship. The Divine authority of the Writings means that they are written not by Swedenborg as a man but by the Lord through Swedenborg as an instrument or agent. But authority also implies the right to command. The Writings, if they are of Divine authority in the New Church, must convey the Lord's commands and the Lord's instruction.

An authority is also a court of appeal. It must be objective, outside of man, a criterion or measure by which our own concepts and our own understanding can be continually checked, disciplined, or confirmed. And it must stand as the source from which authentic truth is drawn. It must not be confused or commingled with man's own convictions, opinions, thoughts, desires, or impulses.

The Writings ascribe Divine authority to the Holy Scripture or Word, which is to be believed "because the Lord has spoken it" (AC 2568, cp. 2588:2, 2533, 2538). Those who believe only in a "natural theology" in heart invalidate the "authority" and holiness of the Word (SS 115). "The Divine authority of the Word" is perverted and perishes with those who believe that the Pope has the right to determine the meaning of the Word (AR 742).

In Holy Scriptures, or the Old and New Testaments, are thus of Divine authority in the church. But let us note that the Old Testament is partly written as "made up" history, which is not literally true, and it also contains certain laws of the Hebrews which are not authoritative at the present day. In the Old Testament the spiritual element is deeply veiled in symbolism derived from Jewish concepts of the nature of the world and its history, and of the moral and civic duties of man, as well as in prophetic allusions and visions which seem to have little relation to spiritual life. And even the New Testament is largely couched in parables and prophecies such as the predictions of the last times.

We can readily sense the holiness of the Word which is present in the correspondential language of the Scriptural Word. But for authority we must look to a clearer element in the Scripture. We recognize authority in those places where the truth is given openly-as in the Ten Commandments and the teachings about the one omnipotent God. We can see authority in the factual history of Israel, where the Divine Providence operates openly. Especially do we see authority in the Gospels, where every statement is historical, even to the acts and words of the Lord and the description of His birth and life and death and resurrection. These are authentic facts, so confirmed in the Writings. The Lord's words, although veiled in parable, are yet transparent enough to let us see naked truths which display the essentials of His doctrine. (See De Verbo 26, SS 55.)

And He spoke as one having authority.

Doctrine should be drawn for the church from the open or naked passages of the literal sense of Scripture, and confirmed thereby. This was recognized in the Christian Church. But because charity waxed cold and false prophets arose, Christians were soon unable to draw the authoritative doctrine from their Word. This was the reason the Writings were given. In the Writings the Lord has caused the open truths of Scripture to be collected into a doctrine of genuine truth-not by giving a new "letter" or a "merely natural sense" such as the Word of the Old and New Covenants, but a "natural sense from the spiritual," which is also to be called the spiritual-natural sense. (See AE 1061.)

This was the coming of the Son of Man in the clouds of heaven with power and great glory. All the naked truths of the former Word which had carried authority were now presented anew as Divine doctrine. The authority of Scripture for the adult New Church man was transferred to the Writings, in the light of which the shadows of the letter take on new meaning and are seen to contain spiritual truths of Divine authority (AR 911, 914). He sees the Scriptures as of Divine origin and authority because they contain the Divine doctrine as an internal sense. And it is undoubtedly so that the angels also see them. (Compare CL 24.)

A word needs here be said as to "power" and "authority." The power of the Word is in its ultimates-in the sense of its letter. (DLW 221, 217; AC 9836:2; TCR 223; De Verbo 25, 54-57.) But the power of the correspondences of the letter is particularly a Power for conjunction and communication, which the spiritual sense by itself does not possess (De Verbo 55, 48; AE 816:2, 3, and 832). On the other hand, it is the naked truths which have power to convince. This is rational power, which gives authority to doctrine. Thus doctrine has power and "prevails" when "confirmed from the sense of the letter as to genuine truth, but less so in so far as one abides in appearances (De Verbo 57, 48; cp. the Latin of AE 1088:4, 5). The naked truths of the Word, devoid of correspondential veilings, "serve for the doctrine of the church, because in themselves they are spiritual-natural truths" (De Verbo 26).

The Writings are revealed spiritual-natural truths and are therefore of Divine authority. They are plain or open statements intelligible by direct rational apperception (Compare AC 5094.) They are indeed also written in symbols, for all words are symbols; but the symbols are rational terms corresponding to rational ideas. And it is in these rational ideas that the Divine inspiration terminates; and it is thus in these rational ideas that the Divine authority lodges.


The Writings address themselves to the rational mind, always conveying Divine doctrine, but by various modes. In many volumes the doctrine is presented as an internal sense of Holy Scripture. In others, it is found in systematic form, under classified propositions rationally confirmed by arguments and illustrations. In still others, it is given in the form of narratives and descriptions of things seen and heard by Swedenborg in the other world. And finally, in others, the doctrine is explained philosophically, confirmed by scientific data known to Swedenborg, or projected on the background of the domestic, civic, and even economic situations of life, and thus applied as rational principles which show the relationship between spiritual and natural things.

To show this relationship between the spiritual and the natural, the natural world must be presented not only in symbolic fashion, as in Scripture, but as it is in itself. The Writings could not have been written before the empirical study of nature had commenced. Swedenborg was prepared "by the sciences." He studied the physical world, learned its general laws, pondered its cosmogony, the constitution of the human body, and the connection of brain and mind. Even his explorations of the spiritual world were in the nature of empirical research.

The Heavenly Doctrine as such came to him a priori, by inspiration. Yet it is obvious that he could not by "influx" receive factual knowledge about the natural world, or speak about planets which were then unknown, or employ terms not yet in use. What was not in his memory as knowledge, could not be used by the Lord to embody the new revelation. On the other hand, he unhesitatingly teaches certain things about the natural world which he himself had arrived at in his previous studies. He rejects various scientific errors of his contemporaries which have since been discredited. He advances many natural truths which have since been confirmed. Even in assigning the first ten or eleven chapters of Genesis to the realm of "made-up" history or sacred legend, he was anticipating the learned world. But he also made many statements in the Writings about the history and nature of the natural world, which modern learning rejects or contradicts. And he emphasizes certain philosophical doctrines which had been known in variously distorted forms to the ancients, and which he now is led to "restore": such doctrines as those of Influx, Correspondences, and Degrees, and the doctrines of the Grand Man and of Man as a Microcosm. He confirms certain phases of the philosophies of Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, and Descartes.

Besides these scientific and philosophic elements in the Writings we find a great many testimonies about historical or contemporary person ages and biblical characters. There are applications of doctrine to natural life injunctions about the orderly introduction to marriage, about the rituals of Baptism, the Holy Supper, betrothals and inaugurations into the priesthood; and about ecclesiastical and civil government, the organization of the commonwealth and the duties of citizens.


In confessing that the Lord speaks in the Writings to His New Church, which acknowledges "no other Authority and no other Law," the men of the Church may hesitate as to what is meant by this authority. Because it is said that "in the church there must be a filleted primate" (Coro. 17), this does not necessarily mean that a bishop must wear a band about his head! When the Heavenly Doctrine states that the king, "where such a form of government obtains," is the chief in which royalty centers, it is an indication that a principle, which is in itself eternal, must be applied according to need. The rational man is here instructed and must then act with judgment. The Ten Commandments also have to be rationally understood before their Divine authority can be seen. The Lord's parables have to be digested in meditative thought before their intended meaning is perceived. The things written in Conjugial Love, Swedenborg states, "have for their end that the reader may see truths from his own rational and thus may assent. For thus his spirit is convinced, and those things in which his spirit is convinced are allotted a place in the mind above those which enter from authority and its faith without any consultation of reason . . . " (CL 295). [Italics added]

Indeed, we are told that there are two contrasting states with the man of the spiritual church. The first state is one in which he receives the immediate influx of the Lord-and wills and acts from no other source than from the fact that "the Word has said so" (AC 8692). He is then in "good from obedience," not yet from affection or freedom; and this good is really truth "done only from command," and does not come to perception (AC 8690). Thus men are "disposed in conformity with revealed truth" in everything.

This first state is signified by Moses judging the people alone. The church is then led by truth and thus by the Divine authority of the Word. But Jethro warned Moses that if this kept on he would soon wear out both the people and himself. Indeed, reliance on authority alone would have the result that the truth thus implanted would perish (AC 8699). What was needed was that Moses should appoint subordinate officers to handle the easier decisions, while retaining the final say-so on really important issues-issues which could be decided only by God, whom Moses would consult. The second state is signified by the introduction of delegated authority. It is a state in which there is charity, and an enlightenment of the rational mind. Such rational perceptions of truth do not carry any final or Divine authority, but only the relative or rational prestige of human judgment.

Yet this is necessary for spiritual progress. When this judgment does not satisfy, the issue must be referred back to the final arbiter, which is the Divine teaching itself-Moses. For Moses is "for the people with God" (AC 8704f).

There are many warnings against accepting truth on merely human authority, whether that of councils, creeds, leaders, or persuasive fanatics. Those in a spiritual affection of truth "utterly reject the dogma that the understanding must be kept obedient to faith," and to the assertion of some dogmatist the angels are apt to reply, "Do you think you are God, whom I must obey?" (D Faith 4; compare AC 3395e)

The "doctrine of the church" must therefore be again and again reexamined in the light of the Word itself. To avoid a merely literalistic concept of any passage, one is advised to collect all the plain teachings, and by comparing them in the light of the general doctrine form doctrine for one's self from the internal sense; for this stands forth from the text to those who are in charity and thence are enlightened as to their intellectual. But it is not the task of man's intellectual to "judge about truths themselves in themselves" (AC 7233). The final truth-truth in se-is only in the Word.


The question is sometimes raised as to certain errors of text, language, or fact in the Writings. For we find a few apparent slips of Swedenborg's pen or memory in his manuscripts, and in the published texts; errors which do not affect the doctrine. It is customary to regard them as errors permitted to remind us that the Writings are meant to be taken rationally; for there is no indication that Swedenborg was verbally inspired, as were the prophets.*

* Two classical examples of such slips may be mentioned: In AE 1146:2, ivory is said to come from camels; whereas in the published work, AR 774, the elephant is mentioned. Both animals signify "general knowledge" (SD 4705). In TCR 632, and BE 31, the date of the Nicean Council is mentioned as 318 instead of 325.

But there are those who believe that Swedenborg sometimes excludes certain things from his authoritative doctrine. For instance: In the Universal Theology, n. 75, he recites certain universals about creation, but adds that "to explain and demonstrate those things . . . does not properly enter into such a system of theology as this as a lemma or argument. . . ."

And in the Last Judgment Posthumous, n. 315, after a treatment on degrees, he writes: "But these things concerning degrees and atmospheres are for the most part theoretical, and theoretical things are drawn and concluded from experience and also confirmed thereby. Unless empirical things as it were lead man by the hand, he can be deceived in matters theoretical, and, from some imaginary principle seizing the imagination, can easily be carried by a succession of conclusions into falsities altogether opposite to truths . . . so that a man may believe that they are truths themselves. I wish therefore now to produce some experiences by which . . . what has been said may be confirmed." He then adduces descriptions of things seen in the other life.

In Divine Love and Wisdom, after showing that the creation of organic forms in the world takes place by a spiritual influx into corresponding matters, and commenting that he once saw some dust in his garden converted into a mass of small insects, he writes: "Whether such things come forth from eggs conveyed thither or whether they spring from the damp and stenches themselves, will now be of question. That such noxious animalculae . . . are hatched from eggs . . . every experience does not support. . . ." He then shows that the experience of some favors those who believe in an immediate origin; and notes that the fact that every animal afterwards multiplies by generation, "does not disprove their immediate origin" (DLW 342). [Italics added]

A careful reading shows that he leaves the question to be settled by future scientific evidence, as far as this world is concerned; while at the same time he maintains, as a principle, that life on earth must have originated by spiritual influx.


Is there then, any principle involved by which we may determine the authority of the Writings in regard to what they present as natural facts?

It is clear that there are numerous cases in which New Church doctrine rests unmistakably upon the verity of some natural fact or philosophical postulate.

The doctrine about the Word rests on the historicity of certain parts of the Old Testament and the New, and on the fact that the text of the Word has not been mutilated. The doctrine of regeneration requires belief that acquired spiritual traits are transmissible. The doctrine of the five dispensations rests on the existence of the Most Ancient Church. The doctrine about the soul and the after-life rests on the philosophical concept of a dualism of spiritual and natural substance. The authenticity of Swedenborg's spiritual experiences depends on the existence of human life on other earths and on a wide variety of other facts. The doctrine of a correspondence between the two worlds cannot be divorced from the existence of three natural "atmospheres." The many anatomical teachings in the Writings are basic to the understanding of the doctrine of the Grand Man in its many phases.

And finally, the doctrine of the Divinity of the Lord Jesus Christ is inseparably bound up with the natural truth that the soul of every man is an offshoot from his father's soul.

Whether or not the world at present regards these natural facts as proved, or as doubtful, or as confuted, they are inbuilt as integral parts of the rational structure of our doctrine. For the rational must rest on natural truths, thus on facts.

It is not the purpose of Divine revelation to reveal new natural facts such as men can discover for themselves. But It would seem obvious that in the course of the giving of a Divine revelation, certain new or unrecognized facts must emerge, and that these, being basic to the doctrine, must acquire a Divine authority, whether men can check their validity or not.


Even for those who accept the authority of the factual basis of the Writings, there may arise questions as to what the terms used by Swedenborg meant to him and should mean to us. Plain rational ideas are couched in terms, but each philosophical approach claims the right to reinterpret these terms in harmony with its own system.

Thus various questions might be asked: What is meant by space and by time? by substance and form? If there is no time in the spiritual realm, could Swedenborg see the heavens and the hells, or the spirits on other earths, in any stage of their development? Did he on occasions visit the past, on others, the future? When saying that matter is formed from spiritual substance, does Swedenborg teach Idealism? Is the natural world only an ordered illusion? Or is the material world of space and time the only substantial world, and spiritual substance only a finer natural, while human minds are appearances of the states of material substance?

The introduction of an interpretative philosophy into the "plain statements" of the Writings can have the effect of evading and nullifying the authority of the doctrine. This is the immediate danger; for while the Writings are philosophically based on certain Aristotelian principles, modern thinking is veering away from the classical postulate that "substance" is a necessary concept. Yet the progress of New Church thought is impossible except by means of a philosophy. The only way by which the Divine authority of the Writings can be maintained is to make certain that such a philosophy is drawn by comparison of passages from the plain statements of these Writings.


The position of many in the Convention and the Conference has been that the doctrine, or the internal sense, is expressed-at least in part-in the Writings; but that the Writings are not the doctrine, but contain also many of Swedenborg's ideas that have no binding authority. Some writers go as far as to select certain doctrinal interpretations of Swedenborg's as stimulating, and dismiss other teachings as quaint and outmoded. For the last word such writers look to the learned of the universities.

Another tendency of opinion is represented by those who follow out the theories of William McGeorge and of the "Dutch Position" to their logical end, and feel that the Writings do not give any direct authoritative teaching on government, marriage, or any natural facts, but that genuine truth comes by translating the text of the doctrine into corresponding spiritual terms, leaving the final "authority" to the regenerate perceptions of men. This vests authority in a spiritual sense, despite the statements of the doctrine to the contrary.

And between these two positions stands the General Church, with its belief that in the Writings the Lord gives us authoritative doctrine in the form of plain rational ideas.



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